I keep trying to write a post about how it’s almost 2020 and a decade has passed since I left my last full-time job but those posts keep getting way too deep for what I wanted to put up here.
So let’s try this again, with just a focus on the writing and some numbers. That should be safe enough.
A decade ago I hadn’t even written my first novel. But in 2011 I finally did. And then in 2013 I wrote a non-fiction book I knew I’d never query traditionally, so I self-published. There were some interruptions in there, like a seven-month consulting project when I didn’t write at all, but six years after that first self-published title…
I currently have two romance novels, four cozy mysteries, and a YA fantasy trilogy published as well as a series of billionaire romance short stories that continue to sell despite my efforts to ignore them. That’s on the fiction side.
On the non-fiction side I have way too many books about Microsoft Excel as well as books about Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. I also have a book on budgeting, a cookbook, a series of books on dating, another on puppy parenting, and a handful of books on self-publishing and/or writing. There’s also a book on data principles that probably needs to be renamed but won’t be.
I had also published but have mostly unpublished at this point a large number of short stories and a book on grief.
Maybe not surprisingly given my background, my most profitable titles have been on the non-fiction side. Six of my top ten most profitable titles are non-fiction. But there are two fantasy novels and a romance novel and those damned billionaires rounding out the top ten.
I didn’t do any of this right. I spent far too much time writing short stories when I should’ve just gone for novels. I had way too many pen names to be sustainable. I didn’t try advertising to any real extent until I was four years into this journey and when advertising would have been far more effective if I’d tried it in year two or three. I didn’t focus in one genre let alone one niche in one genre. I didn’t follow-up on my successes the way I should’ve. I changed direction too often.
But after all that mess I’ve found some small success the last couple of years. I just hit 45,000 units sold as of November and $50,000 in profit. (Which if you do the math is not a full-time living even when concentrated in the last couple of years, but we won’t go there. I should clarify that that’s not enough for me. Some people would be happy to earn $25K a year. I’m not one of them.)
But it taught me a few interesting lessons along the way.
One, you don’t have to write in the biggest market to make money. My romance sells, but it costs a lot more to sell than other titles because of the level of competition which means either rapid release or low profit margins.
Two, writing to a hot market or hot genre will get you more organic sales. I don’t advertise those billionaire stories, but the collection still hit my top twenty-five most-profitable titles this year, and when the first one released (in 2014) it really did sell itself.
Three, I believe in advertising. Others may not have to (although why you’d see initial success without advertising and not find a way to exponentially increase that success by advertising is beyond me), but for me advertising is essential. It gets my books in front of their potential audience.
Four, I personally can’t write what doesn’t interest me. I wrote that first billionaire story as a lark. Wrote and published it in a day. But it was like pulling teeth to get myself to write the next one. And when I did write the rest of that series, I didn’t follow the tropes. My girl from the wrong side of the tracks went and started her own business so that when she finally got together with her billionaire they were on an equal-ish footing.
(I’ve recently come to believe this might have something to do with archetypes. I think the billionaire romance scenario often, but not always, is exploring the orphan archetype and I think I’m more in line with the warrior archetype or the seeker or sage archetypes. So adventure fantasy? Yes, please.)
Five, while being laser-focused helps–I’ve certainly seen more authors find success by writing in a series or in a specific niche–it’s also worth trying something else. I wrote the first Excel books because I was annoyed that authors didn’t know how to use pivot tables and I was tired of hearing people say they couldn’t figure out how many books they’d sold on Amazon. I expected the generic books about Excel to sell less than the one for self-publishers. But that series has been ten times as profitable for me as any other series even though it turns out not many authors bought the book that was written for them.
I’ve also seen a number of authors level up by switching to a new genre. I can count at least three that I know of that did it this year.
Six, when you write in a smaller niche competition can destroy your profits. I was so happy to see the success I had with the Excel titles that I blogged about it. Within a year at least three other “authors” had entered that same small space. They didn’t find the success I had initially. They just took some of a very small pie for themselves and drove up advertising costs so that every single sale was less profitable than before.
Seven, whatever you write you have to satisfy that readership. And what each readership wants is different. For non-fiction my books satisfy readers when they meet them at their current knowledge level and move them forward. Those who don’t know enough yet will be dissatisfied because the book starts too far ahead for them. Those who already know most of what I’m sharing will also be dissatisfied. With fiction it depends on what genre you’re writing. Cozy mystery readers are more concerned about getting the facts right than contemporary romance readers, for example.
Eight, you have to focus on your readers. It’s easy to see a negative review and think you should change the book to satisfy that reader. But often doing so loses you the readers you already have. Obviously, if a book only has negative reviews and they all say the same thing, there’s probably a craft issue there that needs to be addressed. But if ten readers say they loved the X in the book and one says they hated it, don’t change that. Not every book is for every reader.
And keep in mind that there is a very vocal minority in some genres that make it seem like everyone cares about X. They don’t. The average reader is just out there buying the books they like and keeping their opinion to themselves or sharing it with people they know in real life.
Nine, attitude matters. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And I triple-majored at Stanford while working full-time. And got an MBA from Wharton while working more than full-time. Not to mention growing up with a terminally-ill parent. It’s not like I haven’t faced challenges before. But writing almost seems designed to erode your self-confidence. You have people very publicly commenting on everything you do. (If you’re lucky enough to do it well enough for someone to care at all.)
As an author you’re struggling for one of a very limited number of spots at the table. Most writers do not sell. Actually, most writers do not even finish their first novel. Those who do and get it published in one way or another, generally don’t sell all that well once they do. And even for those who do sell and do sell well, you’re never certain it’ll last. And even for those who get to the point where it will last or where they’ve done so well the mortgage is covered for life, well that just opens you up to a whole new level of criticism where people say you can’t write or are biased or complain about what you chose to write about or didn’t choose to write about.
Some days the only thing that is going to save you and keep you moving forward is your attitude. So make sure that you surround yourself with those who believe this is possible. Not probable, you don’t need Pollyannas around you, but possible. If you are struggling and those around you all say, “Well, it’s not like you could honestly expect to make a living at this,” that’s the wrong group of people to listen to. You want the ones who say, “Well, you knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but people do it every day. So what can you change?” Or maybe, “You’re closer than you think, just keep going.”
Ten, because I already have nine, so why not make it ten. This is a marathon. You have to find a sustainable pace for yourself. What you can handle day in and day out. There’s nothing wrong with sprinting to get started, because backlist is powerful and so building up ten novels fast is going to really help you, but at some point if you’re operating in the red you are in trouble. Don’t sacrifice your marriage or your relationship with your kids or your friendships or your sanity for your writing. And do not jeopardize your health for it.
Yes, for some writing is a passion they can’t imagine not having in their lives. But really, it’s not enough in and of itself. You need more. Make it a priority, but don’t make it everything.
So there you have it. Onward to 2020 and the decade it brings with it. I expect change of some sort or other. Then again, I always expect change. It’s the one constant in life.